The Francis Effect: Is this the next ‘Great Awakening’?

September 27th, 2015

Might Pope Francis be the defining witness for the next “Great Awakening”?

I started asking that question as I watched and listened to Pope Francis as he made his made from Havana to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

We were on a “Fall Foliage Cruise” where I was speaking on the way religion in Colonial New England contributed to the formation of our nation. As is usually the case, it’s the story of particular individuals who at a particular moment in history acted in particular ways that influenced the events that followed.

One talk focused on “the Great Awakening,” the spiritual revival that spread across New England in the middle of the 18th Century. Its key witnesses were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, followed by Francis Asbury.

As I watched and listened, I began to wonder if God has called this particular pope to this particular moment in time to bear witness to the gospel in a particular way that will awaken us to a way of witness that transcends the often mean-spirited, contentious, politically-polluted ways of some of the supposedly “evangelical” figures who have dominated the news in our time.

Francis’ way of witness

In both his words and his life, Francis demonstrates a way of witness that is:

… Rooted deeply in the past, speaks courageously to the present and points prophetically to the future. Everything about Francis grows out of the long traditions of the church while connecting with the needs of the present and calling us toward God’s vision of the future.

… Nurtured in and by the church. Francis is not making this stuff up on his own the way political candidates frame their message to impress the constituency they are trying to win. Everything he says and does is grounded in the faith and social convictions of the Roman Catholic Church.

… Lives into the vision of God’s kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ, coming on earth as it is in heaven. He shows us what it looks like to take the Gospels seriously, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus — words that are noticeably absent from some of the politicians who supposedly are the representatives of Christianity in America today.

… Draws people in rather than driving people out. As I watched the massive crowds that were drawn to him, I remembered Jesus’ promise, “If I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”

… Consistently directed toward the “least of these.” Consistent with his chosen name, Francis consistently challenges those of us who “have” to be personally engaged with the “have-nots.” Some of the most moving moments were the times he took children into his arms the way his Master did.

… Works relentlessly for reconciliation and peace. His message to the United Nations was a prophetic witness of Jesus’ call for his followers to be peacemakers.

… Respects national loyalty without surrendering to it. Francis is the same person in every nation he visits, never allowing any nation’s flag to take priority over the cross.

… Challenges every political party without becoming the possession of any of them. Politicians who attempt to co-opt Francis for their agenda are consistently frustrated by the consistency of his message.

… Maintains the integrity of his own faith tradition while providing space for others. The interfaith service at the 9/11 Memorial was a powerful witness to the common values that are shared by every major religious body in our nation.

One of the CNN reporters who traveled with the pope from Cuba through the U.S. simply called his visit here a “come-to-Jesus moment” for all of us.

I’m still a Protestant. There are points at which I would disagree with the pope. But if God can use him as the harbinger of the next “Great Awakening,” you can count me in! At least it’s worth praying for!

Jim Harnish is the author of "A Disciple's Heart" and "Earn. Save. Give." He blogs at at

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